I think it’s fair to say that not everyone in the UK can place Slovakia on the map. There may even be some who occasionally confuse it with Slovenia.
An unacceptable state of ignorance so here are the basics. The territory of Slovakia was, for a long time, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and only became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1919. Modern Slovakia came into being in 1993 and is the south-eastern half of the old Czechoslovakia.
After Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the Czechs and Slovaks agreed the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in a process dubbed the ‘Velvet Divorce’. I’ve always admired the way they went about it and it strikes me that plenty of people might take note. If you don’t like sharing your country with that other lot, then redrawing the boundaries is a lot simpler than killing them. (I know, I know, it’s not always that simple but still…)
If British confusion about Slovakia’s geography was predictable, I hadn’t expected it to be so hard to get information in Krakow about how to travel to the Slovakian border – a mere 120km away. To be fair, my Polish is non-existent and most of the conversations went something along the following lines:
“How do I get to Slovakia?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“ Anywhere that’s easy to get. You see I’m doing this challenge where I run 10km in every country in the world and I just need to get across the border.”
At this stage, I got one of two reactions. A blank look if their English wasn’t great. And a concerned ‘Oh no, I’m talking to a loon’ look if their English was good.
Anyway, as my first day in Krakow wore on, I managed to establish that getting to Slovakia by train would involve a 24 hour round trip, a hire car would be incredibly expensive and there were no flights. But there’s always a way and, sure enough, I eventually found someone who advised me to get a coach to Zakopane – Poland’s ‘winter capital’ – and a bus from there.
I couldn’t get much more detail than that so the next morning I jumped on the coach to Zakopane and, when I got there, was faced with exactly the same problem – except fewer people spoke any English. Eventually the woman at the tourist information bureau got out a map and showed me a place called Chocholow which was some unspecified number of km from the border. Unfortunately she then forcefully took the map back meaning that I had to walk back to the bus station and go round saying ‘Chocholow’ in my best Polish accent. Needless to say, this produced any number of puzzled looks – and even the odd guffaw – before one driver took pity and pointed me in the direction of the right bus.
Half an hour later I arrived in Chocholow and I’m not quite sure why the place isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage site – or at least on the tourist trail. It’s almost entirely made up of beautiful wooden houses – original Polish Góral highlanders’ wooden houses – and should be seen.
Not that I had much time to look around as I’d been travelling for hours and I still wasn’t even in Slovakia. I eventually found someone to point me in the right direction and starting hiking towards the Slovakian border. Thankfully only 1 ½ km away and with no border controls.
I stepped past the border sign and started running – through the delightfully named Sucha Hora and on to Hladovka. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for the first 4km. I really wasn’t doing too badly considering I’d done a 10km in Krakow the day before. At that point the road started going sharply downhill so I turned around. And realised I’d been running downhill all along.
The run back to Sucha Hora hurt and reminded me of a simple truth about running. Even a downslope so gentle that you don’t notice it is a leg breaking uphill on the way back. A deviation round Sucha Hora’s ‘suburbs’ – home to a fine selection of guard dogs – and then back to the border. Huge relief as I finished my most painful run yet.
A limp back to Chocholow, two busses and four hours later I was back in Krakow. Knackered but mightily pleased to have done two countries during my 48 hour stay in Krakow.
Date : 8th October 2013
Time : 53’ 25”
Total Distance Covered to Date : 50 km